“Histoire(s) du cinema. Histoire du cinema. Histoire du cinema.”
So repeats Jean-Luc Godard in his seminal masterwork, a video collage on the history, histories, story, and stories of cinema. This year the Locarno Film Festival appropriated the title “Histoire(s) du Cinéma” for a new section of films. Comprised of an astonishing array of work spanning over eighty years of cinema’s lifetime, and representing the cinema of ten nations, the section has an overwhelming breadth. “The past, the present, and the future are here in Locarno,” says artistic director Olivier Père, and one can definitely see a strong effort within the Histoire(s) section to fulfill that goal. Containing no less than 50 films — though many are shorts — spread out through a dozen sub-sections, a casual observer may accuse the program of being vague, even directionless, but a more investigative look finds rhyme to the reason, and even a philosophical statement implicit in the choice to link these films together.
The section balances several focuses, one of which is to share films that make cinema their subject. Such is the case with Rodney Ascher’s “Room 237” which devotes itself to analyzing interpretations and hidden meanings in Stanley Kubrick’s disturbing masterpiece “The Shining.” Fabrice Aragno — who works with Godard as a cinematographer — is in Locarno with a short documentary “CINEMAsuisse: Jean-Luc Godard,” in which the director’s story is told in 26 1-minute clips, using previously existing footage. Other films of this nature include documentaries on Ben Gazzara, Otto Preminger, and eccentric actor/director Peter Kern. Cinema about cinema, then, is one of the key parts of Histoire(s), but in expanding beyond this single direction, Locarno invites playful thinking on the part of the viewer.
Several subsections are dedicated to the work of specific filmmakers, such as Sarah Morris, Naomi Kawase, Ben Wheatley, and Johnnie To. This may seem like the most suspect programming, or the most loosely associated with the theme, but to place an emphasis on filmmakers of such disparate style suggests hidden links between them and connects them within Locarno’s (hi)story of cinema. It’s an especially nice touch to include Kawase, whose films very much form a personal history, spotlighting the individual within the grand concept, the micro within the macro.
Another central component of the Histoire(s) section is a commitment to film restoration. Among the restored prints playing this year are Swiss films by German artist Hans Richter from the 1930s. In “Die Neue Wohnung,” a film that was actually commissioned to demonstrate the advantages of modern architecture, Richter articulates cramped familial spaces and strictly defined objects like furniture and housewares as oppressive elements. His idea anticipates the cine-philosophies of Jacques Tati years before the arrival of his genius on the big screen, and it’s more or less concurrent with Chaplin’s “Modern Times,” which was looking at a different angle of modern threats to man’s freedom.
Three Marco Ferreri films from ’70s and ’80s are also among the restored prints. Ferreri, who was once fortunate to have a large following in both Italy and the United States, has largely fell out of favor with audiences, or, more accurately, has simply been forgotten — a chapter, it seems, cut out of the latest edition of the story of cinema. This makes the choice to include Ferreri’s “Il futuro è donna,” “La Dernière Femme,” and “Storie di ordinaria follia” especially valuable — and a restoration not just of film, but of film history as well.
Commemoration, restoration, and biography define the Histoire(s) du Cinéma section. Locarno invites the festivalgoer to be their own Godard, to place individual films within the greater context of the history of cinema and the history of the world, and to see a larger narrative, one that only makes itself clear when placing disparate films together. It’s no small role, to take part in the reading, writing, interpreting, and telling of the story of cinema — and in Locarno, that role exists for whoever seizes it, as they navigate from theater to theater, from one cinema to the next, one part of our world to another.
Adam Cook is a freelance film critic and editor for MUBI, based in Vancouver, BC. You also can follow him at his blog, Cinémezzo. This piece is part of Indiewire’s Critics Academy at the Locarno Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.